[MUD-Dev] Rules of the Game: You don't always live twice Or... Take my life, Please

J C Lawrence claw at under.engr.sgi.com
Tue Jun 30 13:38:26 New Zealand Standard Time 1998


First off, I gotta do a side note about the feedback I got from the
first Rules of the Game.  Whoa! Serious nerve hitting action. When I
write these things, it feels like I'm doing radio.  I'm talking into a
mike and imagining you're out there, but I never really know for
sure. I do now. Next time I get so many of you riled up, post the
comments to the thread so we can all smack 'em back and forth. The
comments were too good for me to chomp on without sharing. ;-)
(P.S. I've been in the biz for a very long time and have elephantine
skin...so feel free to flame away.)

Now onto today's topic, Life. Or more specifically, lives.  As in how
many to give your players, how to take 'em away and why it's one of
the most important decisions you can make about your game play. Lives
are the most basic unit of commerce in the video game
business. Pre-electronics, games were about finishing first,
acquisition or survival. The first to cross the finish line, fill the
bucket, or last left standing. All those still exist, and have been
reborn with the ascendance of multi-player gaming. But for the single
player, running a race without an opponent lacks a certain charm from
a game playing perspective. So with the birth of video games, came the
concept of the "life".

What is the meaning of Life?

How many times in my career am I going to get a chance to definitely
answer this one?  ;-) The life is really a construct that pits you
against the game. How far can the player get before he slips up and we
get to kill him? Multiple lives came in because it takes people a bit
of time to get the concept. There is nothing more frustrating than
understanding the rules just in time to be sent home. A while ago I
played paint-ball for the first time and it really pissed me off. I
realized that in physical sports like soccer or Karate, that first
time getting beat makes me feel like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon,
when he gets tagged, reaches up and tastes the blood from his lip and
starts to smile.

With Paintball, I'd get tagged, and just as my adrenaline got pumping,
I'd realize that I was banished to the dead/splattered players hut of
shame. This was a classic example of the influence of multiple lives/
multiple chances, in the game design. The Paintball veterns knew that
they were in jeopardy from the beginning, and spent the whole game on
a combo of attack and fear adrenaline. What are the lessons? Wtih
single live games you get more constant adrenaline, more fear, and
more at stake.

But this is also frustrating and a barrier for a newer player. 

Frustration vs. lack of challenge

Make the game too hard and you lose all the new players.  Too easy and
you lose everybody.  Ah...what a pain in the ass. This is the central
dilemma of choosing the number of lives you give the players. Have you
every come across a broken video or pinball machine that had unlimited
lives? The novelty wears off quickly and the game becomes boring. It's
like playing poker for no stakes. Pretty soon people are taking
ridiculous risks without any fear of consequences and all their stake
and investment in that moment in the game is gone. When you think
about it, lives are the most basic unit of coin in the economy of a
game. And like any unit of money, if you print an unlimited amount,
the value becomes less and less until it's meaningless. With the
original games, lives were worth chances at time. You paid for a
certain amount of time playing the game, and as you got to certain
scores, you'd get bonus lives. Asteroids, Missile Command, even Space
Invaders all had this as their basic currency. (It also exists in an
even more basic element in most current racing games, where time buys
time...if you complete a subsection of the track within a certain
time, you get a bonus batch of time.)

During those early days, your badge of studliness was how long you
could play for a single quarter. In college, there was this older guy
who used to come into the local hangout and play Asteroids for hours
at a time. He was loosing his hair in the middle, and used to get this
psychotic look in his face that looked like something out of
Scanners. He also used to mutter something about "Commie Bastards"
every time one of the small, more deadly, flying saucers came out. He
was a god to us, one of the weirder gods, granted, but a god
none-the-less. This style of life usage in games has almost completely
died out. The reason it did in machines is in the next paragraph...but
that rational doesn't apply to home games, and this is worth looking
at again..

Then Came the Great Change-Change...

The problem with a customer base who was training themselves to
survive forever on a quarter is that it's kind of hard to make any
money when people are only putting 4 quarters in your machine every
day. In fact, it ends up down-right depressing. So was born the
Quarter-pumper. These were games like Moon Patrol and Ghosts & Ghouls
that would let you continue from where you died if you deposited a
quarter by the count of ten. This was a more fundamental change then
most people realized. Suddenly games had no defined end. There was no
end to Missile Command. You might need to stop to see if your lids
could close over your dried-out eyes, but there was no damn end. It
felt wrong to a number of us that you could "buy" lives. We were used
to earning them, and it felt like cheating, and we knew full well that
they were trying to suck up the rest of our paper-route money.


When the systems came home, the first batch of games were based on the
existing arcade experiences. It took Nintendo to change the rules and
let people realize that the life thing could be done
differently. Mario Bros. gave us places to save the game along the
way, if not from session to session, certainly from game to game. And
along the way, lives were scattered like Easter eggs, hidden away,
encouraging players to explore the whole world, in a way that would be
duplicated by Doom's search for shot-gun shells. So lives no longer
had real monetary values, and the number of games was only limited by
how many you could play before your mom thought you were being tacky
for spending your life in front of a screen. (Little did she know what
life held in store...) So lives didn't mean time anymore, they meant
access, how deeply could you penetrate the world. And they were wicked
fun to get, not based on score, but on exploration.

One player, many lives..

And then we moved onto the PC, and the rules have changed over and
over again. The Litany of Lives is as follows:

1) Lives for taking chances - Games like Jedi store lives all over the
place, particularly in areas where some skill must be learned. (Of
course Dark Castle on the Mac did that years and years ago...)

2) Fight to the Death, yours or mine -Street Fighter II popularized
the notion that you can play forever, as long as weaker players kept
pumping in their quarters. After that, you vs. the game, baby!

3) One Life, Saved games - Now all you have to do is save well and save often...all you
lose is what was gained since the last save.

4) One Life-Loss of stuff - This is a big RPG trick. You get to come
back, but part of your strength, goodies, or what ever made you cool
gets knocked back. Diablo was great with this. When you died, you came
back to life at the surface, far from where you were and buck
naked...all your good stuff scattered on the floor where you died.
What was particularly interesting about Diablo is that their
multi-player games allowed no saving, and since I wanted to play with
other people with all the stuff I had, I ended up always playing the
multi-player mode, even by myself. After a while the thrill of the
chances I was taking made playing the regular game, with all it's
saving, seem dull in comparison.

If you're looking, at the end of this, for me to tell you which way is
better, tough. This is one of those, only time, or the specific game
design, will tell kind of endings. Each approach has different values
and downsides. The only thing wrong you can do is not to think it
through and give life the respect it's due.

[Back to Top]

Unemployed with a Theater Degree from Brandeis back in 1984, Ben
Calica [calica at viewpoint.com] has been making a living in the computer
and gaming business in various incarnations since then, Including:
Founding Editor of New Media Magazine, First Toys Editor for Wired,
one of the few single boys to write for Parents Magazine. Product
Manager for the multimedia authoring system, SuperCard Director of
Production for CyberFlix; (design credits on Lunicus, Creepy Castle,
and conceptual design for Skull Cracker) Product Manger for the
ill-fated modem for the Sega Genesis, the Edge, for AT&T [which, by
the way, we decided stood for All Tiny Testi---maybe I'd better tell
that another time]; Worked for NeXT long enough to get into real good
argument with Steve Jobs; And recently was the guy behind Apple Game

He did a bunch of work on interactive drama (wrote script for MacWorld
CD-ROM game of the year in 1993), before he decided it just didn't
work. Spends a lot of free time now lecturing on multi-player/virtual
world stuff. For a day job he works as Director of Product Development
for ThinkFish, an artistic rendering company that recently merged with
Viewpoint Datalabs. He could show you the secret desktop software he's
working on, but then he'd have to kill you.

J C Lawrence                               Internet: claw at null.net
(Contractor)                               Internet: coder at ibm.net
---------(*)                     Internet: claw at under.engr.sgi.com
...Honourary Member of Clan McFud -- Teamer's Avenging Monolith...

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